I’m often asked questions about my book. Things like:
- What’s it about? (Family, music, dreams)
- How long did it take to write? (Six years)
- What inspired it? (Many things—life, things I’m interested in, family stories)
- What made you want to write a book? (I wanted to leave something of myself behind when I die)
Writers tend to ask different sorts of questions, more about the writing:
- Do you have a writing background? (No)
- Have you always wanted to write? (No)
- Did you plan your novel out beforehand? (No, I’m a total pantser and was still pantsing even in the copy edits)
- How did you learn to write? (Make yourself comfortable because the answer to this one takes a while …)
I love being asked about writing and my book, and I’m flattered that people are curious. So, I thought I’d answer some of these questions in a little series—who knows, it might become a bigger series!—called ‘How to write a book’.
Before I start, I want you to know that I find it hard to give advice. I tend to say what worked for me in the hope that someone might identify and find it helpful. But what worked for me, may not work for you. I’ll also add the caveat that I’ve written one book, and while I learnt a lot writing that book, my experience is limited to a single book. I know, too, that talking about writing is a bit like talking about parenting—everyone does it differently, everyone has an opinion, and everyone’s doing their best. I also believe that, like with parenting, most of the learning of writing is done on the job.
So, here is the first of my series on how to write a book (with bonus swan photos):
HOW TO WRITE A BOOK #1:
Give Yourself Permission to be a Learner
When I enrolled in my first ever writing course, an online one based in the USA, I called myself ‘Learner Writer’. I felt that labelling myself a learner gave me permission to have gaps in my knowledge, to ask questions and to take time to learn the craft. Perhaps even more importantly, it allowed me to make mistakes, to write something with grammar or punctuation errors, or that was a bit OTT, or that didn’t quite hit the mark.
This is what I told myself, but it wasn’t as easy as I’ve made it sound. I still felt embarrassed by my errors and frustrated when the vision of my story in my head didn’t translate onto the page. I was annoyed at myself when I couldn’t say all that I wanted to, and I compared my stumbling sentences to the majestic phrases of others. I think, too, that because I was an adult and had a university degree, I held myself to a higher standard and was extra harsh on myself.
It was hard to give myself leeway. Yet, how was I to learn if I didn’t have a go? If I wasn’t prepared to err? If I didn’t make attempts at writing that fell flat or missed the mark? If I didn’t overstep the boundary sometimes? If I didn’t take a risk and bare my soul, or experiment and push myself?
I was 43 years old when I first started writing. I had no qualifications in English, or indeed in any area of the arts at all. I still don’t. Back in 2010, I hadn’t written a story since high school, and there had been nearly two decades of my life during which I’d barely read anything other than a medical text or newspaper. Initially, I kept the fact that I was writing a secret—I didn’t even show my words to my husband. They were too revealing, too fragile.
It took a couple of years until I found the courage to tell the world I wanted to write a novel, and when I did, I felt vulnerable and exposed, as if I’d stripped off naked in public. I worried that people would laugh at me and my stupid pipe dream. I cringed every time I saw the meme where people boast that they judge others based on their punctuation and grammar, because I thought they were rolling their eyes at me and having a giggle at my expense.
There were times I wondered what the hell I was doing trying to learn something new. Why didn’t I stay where I felt secure, in the profession I knew and in which I had expertise? Why was I starting out all over again?
To get through this period, I did a lot of self-talk. I told myself things like:
So what if you make a mistake? No one will die.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
You don’t have to know everything.
You are doing something courageous and brave.
Ignore the naysayers and the judgers. Don’t listen to them. Listen to kind people, the ones who are encouraging, who are supportive, who are telling you not to give up.
You are not being foolish.
I repeated these and similar phrases over and over, and tried not to worry if someone thought my writing was stupid, or if they judged me because I’d written something badly or got something wrong.
The funny thing is, the negative people seemed to drift away after a while—perhaps they saw their words weren’t having any effect, or perhaps it was too hard for them to watch someone doing what they secretly wanted to do themselves.
Hidden in the archives of this blog are some of my early posts. I no longer feel embarrassed when I re-read them—there are grammar and punctuation errors, the wording is clumsy and I wrote about some silly topics. I leave those pieces up because they remind me that I’ve improved and they show my development as a writer. Besides, there are some that I’m proud of, despite the misplaced punctuation!
No, it’s not easy to don those ‘L’ plates, but it’s well worth it.
I hope this post was useful—please let me know what you think. I’ve got a few posts like this up my sleeves, but feel free to ask me questions or suggest topics you’d like me to write about—anything to do with writing a novel or writing in general.
You can let me know in the comments below or via Facebook, or contact me privately here if you want.
Great idea for a series, Louise! I don’t think it necessarily matters that you’re not a multiple-published author, you still have advice to offer. You’ve been through the process of getting a book written and published! So, yes, I think what you have to give will resonate with many.
I feel as if I’ve learnt a lot from writing my ONE book, but even if people don’t learn from what I have to offer, at least they might feel that someone else has trodden the same pathway as they are. 🙂
Wonderful idea, Louise! Thank you for being bold enough to share your answers to the questions! It took me a long time to accept that it was okay to begin learning all over again! So much writing just pours forth, but learning the craft of writing is a real journey. In recognising the need to learn, I also reallise that nothing is accomplished overnight! I now allow myself to meander a little, and enjoy the opportunities that come my way.
You’re right—learning writing takes years, when we want to do it in a week! And writing a novel is completely different to writing in your journal. Nevertheless, it’s really hard to wear ‘L’ plates again! Good luck with your writing, Susan. 🙂
Great idea for a series of blog posts, Louise! I can’t wait to read them. I believe I’m at the stage you’re describing above. Got my L plates on, trying to figure out this ‘novel writing thing’.
Thanks, Alyssa! I’ll do what I can to write interesting posts about things others might be interested in. And you’re doing a great job on your ‘L’ plates! 🙂
Thank you so much Louise for starting this blog. It helps when one reads about other writers’ journeys.i can read and identify with everything you have said and have a million questions along the way. I also started writing in later life, too embarrassed to say how late, but have managed to produce a first draft. I find it impossible too attend writers’ groups in person and so have done a lot of courses on line and used a bookcase full of wonderful reference texts. please continue with your blog. I will look forward to following you along the way. Thank you
Let me know any questions you have, Dee, and I’ll try to accommodate. It’s fantastic you have a first draft—now the fun really begins! Good luck with the revisions! xx
Great idea for a series Louise. You have so much to share, and I love hearing about other authors’ processes and thoughts. I love this post too – I feel I could have written it myself.
I’m so pleased it resonated—I’m never sure when I write something if anyone else will identify! I love reading about other authors processes and pathways, too! 🙂
I love your new series, Louise. It’s very comforting and fascinating read ❤️
I’m so glad you liked it! I’m also glad to see you back at the keyboard, too! (Although, we do need a break from time-to-time!) 🙂
It wasn’t a ‘voluntary’ break. My ‘day-job’ took over my whole life…. Things should ease a bit after September, when I start my study leave when the only thing I’ll be required to do is to be at the keyboard 🙂
That will be nice! I’ve missed you. x
We started our writing careers around the same age, Louise. I was around 40 when I began to take my writing seriously though I had fancied myself as a poet when a child. The thing that most resonates for me here in your post is your experience of being beginner and the fear of making it clear, you’re writing a book. Tucked inside my old online files I still have one entitled ‘Elisabeth’s Book’. I trembled when I wrote those two words over twenty years ago. It’s taken me much longer than it took you, but we did it, your novel, my memoir, and the rest will evolve. Great idea this series, Louise, as are all your ideas.
Not all of my ideas are good, I can assure you! Some are a little harebrained! But you’ve got to think outside of the square sometimes!
I can just picture you writing those words with your hand trembling, Lis. You’ve described it so tenderly, I can feel the courage it took to write them. There are some dreams that are just so personal and fragile that we need to keep them to ourselves in case someone tramples on them. (Reminds me of that line from Yeats: ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’)
And yes, we’ve travelled a few years together now, and written our books and they’re being published! Good luck in the coming months! xx
You are very inspiring Louise. I’m itching to get back into writing. Though I can’t find the energy to even blog at the moment. I’m currently immersed in a Diploma of Family History. I know this research will be important to dad, I’m researching his father, who died from TB at 46 years of age. TB’s cure was found one week after his death. Dad’s mind is failing so I have a sense of urgency to show him what I’ve found. He often turns to thoughts of his dad so I’m hoping this will give him some comfort. So I give myself space to direct my energy there. At the same time I’m learning a lot about research. I think that’s called ‘kill two birds with one stone’, not literally of course x
What a special gift for your dad! It will ultimately contribute to your own writing, I’m sure, as well as being a comfort for your father. And priorities—I know I don’t have to tell you that, though. xx
You’re spot on comparing writing advice to parenting advice! So much of each abounds – not all of it useful or helpful, and some of it can be soul destroying when taken seriously. I appreciate the advice you’ve given here – and that you’ve left it to the reader to decide whether it works for them. I’m still on my L plates and trying to be nice to myself when my writing can’t keep up with where I imagine it might go. Hopefully I’ll swap over to the P plates within the next year or two…
I also adore your photos, Louise!
And I’ll work on coming up with some future questions for you. Your advice I DO value!
Thanks so much, Marie! Your words mean a lot to me, and I get a lot from reading your posts, too. I think we’re on similar wavelengths …
Good luck with your ‘L’s, although I’m not sure that any of us really get off them when it comes to writing. Or parenting! 😉
You are helpful
Thank you, Alexandra! That’s nice of you to say. 🙂
I’m really looking forward to this series of posts Louise, even though I’ve given up on writing attempts for the time being. When I begin to try again I will have gained some insight from you at least 🙂
You’re such a good writer, Pinky, and have such a great sense of humour that I hope you do return to writing one day! 🙂
Just getting to this now Louise (sorry to be late to the party!), and it’s so true – how can we hope to improve if we don’t ever begin? We all have to start somewhere, like you did … and look at you now!! I’m looking forward to the next post on this topic.
Thanks, Fi! It’s hard to take that first leap but it’s worth it! Even if you fall flat on your face a few times in the process. 😉
What an awesome idea for a series! Thank you for sharing Louise and yep, the L plates are freaking hard, but we all have to start somewhere 🙂
We do and it’s okay to make mistakes as we learn! xx
I’m a bit late to reading this series, Louise, but it’s wonderful! Such a good idea to share the process, not just to inspire, but also to state the realities, the highs and lows, of writing a book. I can totally relate to how you feel about your early writing – I’m much the same but, as you say, it is a step in the process of becoming a better writer, and how we learn to improve. Looking forward to reading (and sharing) the next instalments!
I’m glad you liked this, Helen, and don’t worry about being late to it, especially because I know you’re so busy these days!
As for re-reading one’s early writing—I don’t know about you, but most of it makes me want to take to it with the clippers. However, in between the crud is an occasional shining light of a passage that I can’t believe I even wrote! It’s nice to keep as a record of our improvement, if nothing else.
Thanks for visiting. 🙂
Ah, we’re all busy – I’m sure I’m nothing special! Just having trouble finding the balance at the moment, but I’m getting there.
And yes, my early writing! Like you say, there are gems in there, hints at what I could become as a writer, but so much that needs clipping! As an indie I suppose that is one of the advantages – I can clip if I want to 🙂 Still I do keep a record of the original, just as a reminder of the distance I’ve travelled as a writer.
And I love visiting! Hope we do get to meet in person one day x
I don’t know your early writing because you’ve always been a brilliant writer as long as I’ve known you. 🙂
And I’m sure we will get to meet one day. 🙂 x
Aw, you are too kind, Louise! I can say the very same about you 🙂
And, as for meeting, I hope we do!
I’m sure we will! 🙂
This is a great read, Louise. And motivation for the inner writer in all of us. I have only recently started taking writing seriously, and reading a post like this really encourages me. Mathew 🙂
That’s lovely to hear—thank you, Mathew! Good luck with your writing and I’d love to hear how you go with it! 🙂
Thank you, Louise. You can read my short story on my blog and let me know what you think. 🙂
Will do when I get a chance, Matthew! 🙂